For Whom the Bell Tolls

Electronic monitoring may dramatically curb truancy. So why isn't DISD interested?

Jaime shut down when he first started missing school, says Mendez, but when he started the monitoring program, it opened up his eyes and he started asking questions. Mendez credits the GPS device with giving his grandson a second chance, and Jaime says the curfew has brought him closer to his grandparents. He's even helping out with chores, something he refused to do in the past.

"Just knowing that people are watching me, helping me out with schoolwork and keeping me aligned in school has helped me a lot," Jaime says.

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When the first pilot program at Bryan Adams was completed in the spring of 2007, Pottinger prepared a 67-page report which analyzed the results of the program. The study examined 92 truants who accrued a staggering 5,095 unexcused absences in the first 10 weeks of the spring semester—an average of 55 absences per student. These chronic truants were split into a monitored group and a control group.

The 46 monitored students went from an average attendance of 85 percent, which is below the 90 percent requirement to get class credit, to 97 percent during the six-week pilot. The top half (23) of them had almost perfect attendance at 99.75 percent. Meanwhile, the control group continued to miss class, ranging from 83 percent to 85 percent over the same time period.

The program's success was enough to convince Cantrell and the Dallas County Commissioners Court to budget $500,000 to expand AIM, with the provision that DISD would match the funds. But the program wasn't well-received by some local politicians, most notably Senator Royce West.

Commissioner Cantrell would not repeat West's specific concerns, but he confirmed that West "has a serious problem" with using electronic monitoring. "He didn't want to do it, and the school district didn't want to do it," Cantrell says. "So that's why we're not doing it."

West says he is opposed to the use of ankle bracelets because they "send the wrong signal" to students and are intrusive. "Are they truants? Yes. Are they criminals? No," he says. "Do we need to deal with truancy? Yes, we do."

Based on a May 12 New York Times article about the AIM program citing "a state senator" who compared the ankle bracelets to "slave chains" and sources telling the Observer that West's concerns were related to a connection with slavery, he was asked if his opposition was in fact racially rooted.

"Everybody can opine on what they think," he says. "But the reality is that I don't want kids getting used to having to wear ankle bracelets. They put them on and become accustomed to it, and then they can't do without them. I just think it sends the wrong signal."

Dotty Griffith, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, raises similar concerns about "criminalizing students because it's so similar to electronic monitoring for students under house arrest." She also has some reservations about the extent to which AIM violates the privacy rights of students, particularly because it uses a device to track kids after school hours. "Obviously, we'd be concerned that the systems were set up so that you weren't able to hack and track—where somebody could hack into the system and somehow track a child."

Although West's concerns delayed funding for an expanded program, Pottinger credits West with challenging him to redesign the program. The Bryan Adams' pilot this spring, though smaller in number, used a walkie-talkie unit with a cell phone inside, instead of the ankle bracelet employed in the first two trials.

West says he hasn't seen the new unit, but he will be evaluating it to see if it addresses his concerns. And he says if the unit is similar to a traditional cell phone, "then that's OK with me."

Tom Urrutia, a former DISD teacher who tracks the students for AIM using the Internet, was skeptical that the program wouldn't have the same success without the ankle bracelets because "the kids were pretty much tethered before." But the nine students in this spring's program achieved near perfect attendance while being monitored, with just four unexcused class absences among them.

The program is financially feasible, adds Urrutia, and while it's not a perfect system, "it certainly works well." If he could add something to the program, he'd want to provide more intensive communications, including helping the parents get health insurance and jobs.

Pottinger has plans to expand AIM to between 600 and 800 truants over the course of a full school year, which he estimates will cost approximately $638,000. Despite a March meeting with DISD officials Jose Torres and Karen Ramos at which Pottinger says they "enthusiastically" invited AIM to be part of a federal grant request, the district says the program was not included in any grants and there are no immediate plans to match the county's $500,000 pledge. DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander confirms that the grant was discussed with Pottinger, but says there was less funding available in the grant than anticipated, so the money was used to support existing programs. Ramos, who was the principal at Bryan Adams before Goodsell and is the director of alternative programs for DISD, refused to comment to the Observer.

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